In a bid to give a different direction to the politics of Punjab revolving around Jatt Sikhs, the Congress made Charanjit Singh Channi the first Dalit Chief Minister of the state replacing Captain Amarinder Singh in September last. It was called a masterstroke by the party, eventually leading it to declare Channi to be its chief ministerial face in the 2022 assembly elections. Channi, however, faces many challenges like taking the dissidents of the party along, securing the bulk votes of Dalits, and winning over all other communities including Jatt Sikhs. If he fails to deliver, Congress’s problems will only rise not only in the state but also at the central level. Harish Manav of Outlook speaks to the Chief minister on all these questions in the midst of his hectic campaign, which ended on February 18. Edited excerpts:
It is said that Rahul Gandhi declared you the chief ministerial face of Congress despite opposition from many party leaders.
Rahul ji has given me a chance to serve the public again after assessing the opinion of the people of Punjab and many senior party leaders about my work during 111 days of my tenure.
Do you expect Congress to get the majority by declaring you as the chief ministerial candidate shortly before the February 20 elections?
The era of princely states has come to an end in Punjab. I have come from a common, poor family and I hope that the people of Punjab will give me another chance for the next five years considering my performance during 111 days.
Rahul Gandhi says that a person from a poor household has been declared the face of the post of Chief Minister, but Captain Amarinder is saying that Channi has amassed property worth crores of rupees. The wife of your state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu is also saying the same thing.
Captain Saab is under stress after being removed from the post of Chief Minister. He is speaking just about anything. He refrained from solving people's problems for four-and-a-half years during his tenure. He is an elderly person and has been my old leader. Even today, I respect him, so I will not comment much on him.
The ED arrested your nephew and recovered Rs 10 crore in cash on charges of illegal mining in your assembly constituency, Chamkaur Sahib. You are also being accused of having patronised the mining mafia.
Those who have done wrong are paying the price of it. I have hundreds of relatives and I am not responsible for what they are doing. Shiromani Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party are linking my name with anyone for their vested political gains.
In your election campaign, you are highlighting the work of your 111 days in the office instead of the preceding four-and-a-half years of Congress's tenure. The Opposition, however, alleges that you have made Punjab poorer during your stint so far?
How can Punjab's treasury be emptied by making electricity cheaper for people by Rs 3 per unit, waiving water bills and increasing the old-age pension? The coffers are not depleted on account of the expenditure made for the public good. In fact, people's money is being spent on people.
Sunil Jakhar, a senior leader of your party, recently said that 42 MLAs were in support of Captain Amarinder Singh while only two MLAs were in your support when the new Chief Minister was being selected. Still, you were chosen.
After the removal of Captain Saab, I was not even in the race for Chief Minister. So it does not make any sense as to how many MLAs were in my favour. The Congress high command has reposed faith in me and I have tried my best to live up to the trust.
Except for OBC leader Giani Zail Singh, the Jatt Sikhs have over the years held the post of the Chief Minister for most of the time in Punjab. You are the first Dalit Chief Minister in the state. Do you think that this big change will turn the poll results in favour of Congress?
Congress is a secular party, which takes all sections along. I do not see any major change in this. I have been active in politics since my college days. I have been elected as a councillor thrice, became the head of the municipality twice, and got elected as an independent MLA once. After becoming MLA for the third time in a row, I was made the Chief Minister. It should not be seen from the prism of any caste or religion.
You are contesting from two seats, Chamkaur Sahib and Bhadaur. Were you wary of any anti-incumbency in Chamkaur Sahib which made you contest from two seats?
It was the decision of the party. I am getting the love of people in both the seats and will get their votes as well.
State Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu seems to have kept his distance from campaigning all over Punjab. He is confined to his Amritsar East seat only while AAP is campaigning across Punjab.
It's not like this. He has been campaigning whatever he gets time. Apart from Rahul ji, Priyanka Gandhi ji, all the senior leaders of our party have been busy campaigning.
Is Congress contesting against Shiromani Akali Dal or Aam Aadmi Party as the main opponent?
The Congress, which won 77 seats in 2017, will cross 80 this time. As of now, no party is in competition with us.
Many political analysts are of the opinion that there is an undercurrent in favour of Aam Aadmi Party and it is close to getting a majority.
There is no truth in such speculations. Aam Aadmi Party cannot throw dust in the eyes of the people of Punjab. Its candidates are also not the common man. More than 40 candidates are the party hoppers from Congress, BJP and SAD.
If you become the Chief Minister again, what will be your first task, which could not be done during your tenure of 111 days?
There will be a provision to give one lakh government jobs when I will sign the first file.